America’s Global Indifference and Looming Challenges

Indifference to global developments is not a new phenomenon in America’s public life. In recounting the story of the Council on Foreign Relations, Colorado College political scientist David Hendrickson, writing in “Foreign Affairs,” noted the relative ignorance among officials and the public about the world. Of the former he said the U.S. State Department, in the wake of World War I, lacked the “detailed knowledge of European conditions that would be required for redrawing, as fairly as could be done, the map of the world.” Of the citizenry of the day, he said “American domestic opinion was returning with a vengeance, to the insular habits that had long characterized it,” citing as evidence the “Philadelphia Record’s” comment in 1928 that, “The American people don’t give a hoot in a rainbarrel who controls north China.”

It is an interesting game of “what if” to examine the implications for America and the world to American global indifference after World War I. Could US leadership and involvement in sorting out the global map and power relationships have prevented the rise of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, averting World War II?

We should be pleased that the State Department’s reputation for global awareness is greatly improved since Woodrow Wilson’s Administration, as America’s position in the world – and the extent that what happens in the world impacts its domestic life – has seen a monumental expansion. However, too many key officials, policy and decision makers, and “thought leaders” in the United States perpetuate, and in some cases celebrate, global indifference and ignorance. Pick your side of the political aisle and you can easily find someone on the other side who can be lampooned for some laughable faux pas with an interviewer. Some candidates and prospective campaigners have built media firewalls around their ignorance, resorting to one extreme cable news channel or the other, or Facebook and Twitter as they seek to limit their interactions with legitimate questions and prospective constituents.

In his 2008 book, “Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing the Truth About the American Voter,” Rick Shenkman cited seemingly inexhaustible facts and figures to support the argument that we citizens of this great Republic are little more than metaphorical ostriches with our heads buried. Most Americans can’t name their Congressional representatives, only 20% hold a passport, 30% cannot identify the Holocaust. A 2006 National Geographic Society survey of young adults, those most recently educated by our schools, reported that only 30% of Americans could locate Iraq on a map, just three years after the United States’ invasion of that country and the investment of priceless American blood and unending American treasure to transform it. Shenkman argues the ignorance of our citizenry in civic and international affairs is exploited by manipulative media and politicians who have come to rely on American indifference to advance their agendas. One need only look at the striking absence of international issues – anything at all, much less anything meaningful – from the 2010 mid-term election cycle campaign dialogue. Demagoguery and shouting have replaced thinking and conversation.

It might have been excusable in another time to argue that there are too many troubles within our own borders to concern ourselves with challenges beyond the water’s edge. That argument might have made sense to the readers of the “Philadelphia Record” in 1928, but it doesn’t wash anymore. Our economic troubles are not ours alone – not in an era where our indebtedness to China rocks our geostrategic footing in every corner of the planet. It should by now go without saying that the United States’ future is interwoven with the globalized world, but sadly too many of us have little idea what the rewards and challenges of globalization are about. While we are irrevocably interconnected with the world the ignorance of our trade imbalances, the sources of our energy resources, the identities and differences among our global friends, foes, and adversaries, where and why our sons and daughters are in combat, imperils our ability to navigate past rogues in the media and in the political process.

To be sure, our domestic agenda, what occupies the little attention Americans seem to give to public affairs, is daunting and warrants understanding. But just take a look at the international landscape. America’s role in the world is wildly outsized compared to its understanding of it. Troops in hot wars in two countries as well as two more theaters where hostilities involving American armed forces could erupt within days or months – belligerent challenges from North Korea and Iran. There are almost certain states of war and crisis impending between Israel and Lebanon that involve American interests. How many Americans have contemplated being involved in four shooting wars simultaneously as well as a handful of other crises that demand our attention? Just today there is a referendum in Sudan, Africa’s largest country, which could divide that nation into north and south, and spiral into a humanitarian disaster. Observers warn of atrocities – potentially genocidal campaigns – that would beg international (meaning American) intervention. What public discussion has there been of America’s role in stopping another African genocide?

Even in “good times” we cannot remain ignorant of the world. Even if we avoid war in the Persian Gulf this year the recovery from the global recession will mean higher fuel prices as a result of higher demand for energy. American petroleum consumption, about 25% of the global total, even though we are 1/20th of the population, is already up 4.4% compared to a year ago. Global capacity to meet the demand for oil will be tested again this year and the milestone prices of 2008 will probably be eclipsed. Sadly, rational discussion will undoubtedly be shouted down by anger over five dollar a gallon gas at the pump by American consumers who have little understanding or interest in where and how fuel comes to their gas station.

Which politicians are talking about our options, our interests and our role in the world? Which Americans are listening and demanding realistic courses of action? Is it time for a wake up call? Time for a campaign against ignorance and indifference? Are we ready to change the channel from “American Idol” to American interests? Or are Americans not yet ready to give a “hoot in a rainbarrel” even with some knowing there will be consequences?


Patrick W. Ryan is a writer and editor in Cookeville, Tennessee.

Published in the Herald-Citizen on January 9, 2011

  1. Posted by Editor on behalf of Mr. Sherwood MacRae:

    Pat, I am an 80 plus year “young” retired guy living in Cookeville and noticed your article in the Herald-Citizen today. I appreciate what you had to say, but I must ask you about the “looming” challenges.

    By way of an introduction, I’ll give you an idea as to why I am curious. First, it was 1947 and I was a 17 year old kid, fresh off a dairy farm in Michigan, joined the Army Air Corps to qualify for the WWII GI Bill of Rights and obtain a college education, something my family could not afford. The recruiters assured me I would be going to a trade school but instead, I found myself on my way to Japan to join the Army of Occupation and to
    tell you the truth, I was scared out of my mind to think of associating with those “slant eyed, yellow bellied” murderers of some of our neighbors. But the military knew what they were doing and at the “replacemennt depot” a Colonel explained that we were not there to accuse them of the atrocities we had heard of, but to be the same kind of good citizens as we had been raised to expect. And so it was. I would spend over 50 months in Japan and Korea and came away enthralled with the experiences, only to learn that no one at home had any interest in hearing about the Far East – an area I had grown to love.

    I got my college degree and the first thing we knew, we were getting involved in a war in Vietnam and I was sickened by the thought as part of my earlier tour had brought me into the farce that was our war against the North Koreans – brothers fighting brothers, the same question that came to mind as my history professors regaled us with stories of our own civil war. I trust you will agree, we were very wrong getting involved in Vietnam, not just because of the loss of so many of our military, but also the fact that – in the eyes of the Asian mind, we had been disgraced.

    Then, came 9/11 and our “warrior” President led us into another farce – to find Obama bin Laden and destroy Al Qaeda. It is going on ten years now and the only thing we have accomplished is turn the minds of the Middle Easterners against us. For all we know, bin Laden may have air conditioned the caves in which we are told he is hiding. And today – below your article, is one of our locals whining about the actions of our Senators to approve the START treaty, an honest effort between two sovereign nations to reduce the obscene amounts of nuclear armaments each possesses and hopefully enhance the positive relations between the two – something we must do if we are to bring reality to our intentions to have peace on this planet.

    My take on my experiences – the American public is not ready to grasp the reality of dealing with foreign nations as – every since I was that teenaged kid, we have been “at war” whether we were in actual combat or in merely living in fear of what else might be happening in nations that far too many of us are being led to believe have “evil” intentions. I still recall when General Eisenhower warned us about our reliance on a military industrial complex that he seemed to fear would distort our economy – a warning that was ignored and its offspring is now the cause of the loss of jobs that troubles far too many of us.

    I spent most of my life as a recruiter and tried to warn others when I saw what was happening in the mid 70’s, but of course, if you’re not politically connected, your voice on the subject of “jobs” and job “creation” will never be heard. I had to throw that in to substantiate my thought in the preceeding paragraph.

    Anyway, I hope you will take my perspective into consideration and help me understand the challenges of which you were speaking.

    And I thank you for your consideration. Oh yes, if appropriate, you can copy my letter of your “blog” and comment so that your readers get a chance to read – hopefully, our discussion.


    Sherwood MacRae

  2. Dear Mr. MacRae:

    Thank you so much for your email and thank you for your service to America.

    I too lived in Japan for several years, during my Navy days, but it was a different era than the post-war period. I was in Yokosuka from 1983-1985 serving aboard a guided missile cruiser that was based there. I enjoyed it immensely, as I did with most of the overseas experiences I had in my career.

    You make many good points in your letter and I appreciate you taking the time to share them with me (and I will post your comment to the blog as well, for others to read.)

    I would say, in response to your question about “what challenges?,” are both tactical, at the local regional level around the world, and our strategic challenges for the future, the larger pieces of our national security and advancement of our national interests.

    At the tactical level we have all of the conflicts and simmering trouble spots around the world, that flare up in the news from time to time. Of course, the big ones are Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Israel-Palestine, Korea and so forth. Each presents its own problem set, but they also are interrelated in complex ways that are difficult to separate and tackle on their own. With respect to strategic challenges I think America is on a decline in many of the areas that have made up our strategic power over the last 50-100 years — financial, military, diplomatic, and moral leadership. Americans, in my humble opinion, to take stock of who we are and where we are (in our collective economic, social, political and moral circumstances) and create a path ahead that is not constantly impaled on the stake of partisan acrimony and personal expediency. That will take leadership and, what we called in the Navy, follow-ship.

    I hope I was able to better explain my perspective on the challenges ahead. It is an area where we can get tied up in words, especially if they’re coming from a politician or someone advancing an agenda.

    Again, I appreciate your insights and thank you for perspective.


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